Your Guide to Developing Mental, Emotional, and Physical Toughness

Emotional, mental, and physical power are all connected — and you need to build each to truly thrive. Here's how you can capture and build all your strength to tackle whatever obstacle life throws at you.

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Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

A pandemic, racism, political polarization — 2020 is testing us individually and collectively. As we’ve risen to meet these challenges, we’ve learned how essential strength is to our health and survival, our connections and communities, and our confidence and well-being.

More than ever, we need qualities like grit, resilience, and drive, as well as physical power and stamina. Fortunately, having one can make building all the others easier, research has found. For instance, women who regularly lift heavy weights learn to persevere through other life challenges, according to a study. Increasing your physical strength “allows you to see that you can do difficult things, which increases your confidence and empowerment,” says study author Ronie Walters, of the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland. At the same time, mental toughness gives you the calm and focus to physically perform your best, says Robert Weinberg, Ph.D., a professor of sport psychology at Miami University in Ohio.

With our plan, you’ll learn to develop the strength you need to overcome obstacles, fight for a brighter future, and navigate the world.

Fortify Your Mind

Mental toughness is the capacity to focus, remain calm, maintain confidence, and stay motivated over time. “It overlaps with grit, a trait that emerges when something you’re passionate about intersects with persistence for achieving it, says Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and author of Grit and the founder of Character Lab, a nonprofit that advances scientific insights to help kids thrive. Both pieces of that equation are necessary, says Duckworth. Simply being excited about a cause or project won’t help you stick with it for the long haul. To persevere you have to commit to a goal and take clear actions. “Engage with things that have built-in commitments,” since intentions often get crowded out over time, she explains. “If you sign up to help get out the vote, an organizer will be calling you.”

Toughness is something everyone can work on, says Weinberg. One way to build it is through adversity training, which puts you through trial runs so you can practice solving problems under pressure. For example, if you’re trying to bring changes to an organization and you know you’ll be speaking with people who will oppose your ideas, try to anticipate the difficult questions they’ll ask and rehearse your answers. Practice staying focused and calm as you work through potential conflicts.

Another strategy for powering up your mental toughness is to use positive self-talk, says Weinberg. When you make a mistake, instead of starting a destructive inner monologue that will tank your confidence and damage your performance, try to observe objectively. “Simply say, ‘Here’s where I am right now, and these are my options,’” says Weinberg. A neutral view will help improve your ability to stay strong. Of course, this is easier said than done. To get better at it, use imagery: For example, visualize a situation in which you trash-talk yourself, and practice an objective response. Try doing this a few times a week or even daily.

Reinforce Your Emotions

Openness and flexibility are hallmarks of emotional strength, says Karen Reivich, Ph.D., the director of training programs at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s not about being stoic. Someone who is emotionally strong is comfortable being vulnerable and OK with being uncomfortable, which helps them not get stuck in any emotional state. “The standard rhetoric of our culture is to push through tough times, to always be positive and look on the bright side,” says clinical psychologist Emily Anhalt, a cofounder of the mental fitness community Coa. “But real strength is feeling a full range of emotions and building up the resilience to move through them.”

Resilience is the ability to tap into internal resources (like your values) or external ones (like your community) to get through difficult times, and then being open to growing from those challenges. And it’s something you can cultivate, says Reivich. Some of the building blocks to resilience include self-awareness (paying attention to your emotions, thoughts, and physiology), controlling your inner dialogue to keep it productive, optimism, knowing what your skills and talents are and how to leverage them effectively, and connection with others or a greater cause.

Real strength is feeling a full range of emotions and building up the resilience to move through them.

Self-awareness also helps you see yourself clearly, even when the picture is uncomfortable. It requires a willingness to look inward, which entails taking a risk, says Reivich. “You might discover something you’re not satisfied with or proud of,” she says. It’s an act of vulnerability that ultimately helps us get stronger and stand up for what we believe in, even in the face of fear. “If we’re not in touch with who we really are, it’s hard to change,” says Anhalt. “The more you understand that, the more you can move through life with intention.” (One way you can build self-awareness? Date yourself.)

To further build your resilience, Reivich suggests taking “purposeful action,” which means consciously doing things that are aligned with who you are and your goals. “Ask, ‘How can I be pro- active in a way that feels authentic?’” she says. In the face of racism, for instance, that might be joining protests, supporting businesses owned by people of color, or talking to your employer about improving the company culture. Doing something that’s true to you builds your strength by demonstrating your power, even in a situation where you might initially feel helpless.

Build Your Body

Exercise keeps you healthy, but it also energizes your mind and improves your outlook and confidence. You need several types of muscular strength, says Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., the director of the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence at McMaster University in Ontario. First, there’s maximum strength, which is your ability to lift the heaviest thing you can. Strength endurance enables you to pick up a relatively heavy thing repeatedly. And power, which Phillips says is the most important to build and most applicable to everyday living, is generating strength or force quickly. (Think: squat jumps or quickly standing up from the floor.)

For most of us, a mix of these three types of resistance training will develop the physical strength we need. Do a few sessions of strength-endurance work like weight lifting and plyometrics each week, but don’t worry about lifting heavy all the time, says Phillips. You can get just as strong by doing heavy weight lifting once every few weeks, he says. In addition, eat several servings of nutrient-dense, protein-rich foods each day to help build and repair muscle. Also, get plenty of sleep to perform your best and properly recover.

Strength training will help ensure that your body remains strong, just as building your mental and emotional strength will help you get through the current crises and fortify you to face the future.

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